13 December 2019

What I learned from “my year as a bloody pin cushion”

A few weeks ago, I turned the ripe old age of 60! Yes, thank you, thank you. What it means is that I have stayed awake for a long time – but I’m still (maybe) not yet woke.

My health over those 60 years has been reasonably good. Had the odd broken bone, a few dislocated joints – but hey, farming was a tough profession on the body. Had one proper bout of flu, as an adult, which was epic, but I would say on the whole my physical health has been pretty good.

My mental health has been a little more erratic, often due to fatigue, and working too much. On reflection this was due to needing to be busy and not facing up to some difficult situations in my life. I think my work ethic was motivated more by negative thoughts than positive ones and working kept me numb enough to get by.

This only spilled over into depression once (that I am aware of) when I was so stretched looking after three farms, fulfilling board of trustees’ duties, and trying to be a father. The doctor put me on antidepressants as a fix, which I started, only to find it evaporated my libido. At that point I thought shit, now I am sick, so I stopped taking the medication and sorted my workload and attitude out. The body is an amazing thing to witness, when given the chance to heal itself.

I heard an excellent quote a year or so ago, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” Hell yes. Little did I know.

Some maintenance work in progress…

Twelve months ago, the body was giving me lots of signals that some serious maintenance was overdue. The bad hip I had put up with for 20 years was slowly getting more painful and stiff. My wife Kate kept saying, ‘get it replaced, as you will wear out your good hip’. Yeah, yeah, whatever.

My heart also had this annoying habit every month of going into a spasm, officially called atrial fibrillation – this can cause strokes and other nasty stuff. I took a deep breath and thought if I want to have a half-decent, productive and active life from now on, I need to deal with these two conditions.

The plan was to get the heart reset with a surgical procedure, before getting the arthritic hip replaced three months later. Boom – easy as. The heart surgery went really well. Thirty hours in a Wellington hospital, a little discomfort, but in the scheme of things it was a walk in the park.

I was like, “next”!

That would be the x-rays for the hip. I lay on the table and naively said, “you only need to x-ray the right hip.” The nurse said, “well, while you are here, let’s just do both.” So, off I go to see my new GP (who doesn’t know me at this stage). I pompously announce, “I need surgery on my right hip which is arthritic.” This new GP is an English woman with that wonderful English humour, who promptly laughs at me and informs me both hips have severe arthritis. I thought she had it wrong! I was in denial, and thought, “something is not right here!”

That was December 14th, 2018. One week later I was walking along a golf course and my good hip ‘seizes’ up. No immediate pain, but I can’t move and have to be put in a cart to get back to the club house.

To say my best-made plans turned to shite would be an understatement. As it transpires, I have now had two hip replacements, a frozen shoulder worked on with physio and acupuncture for six months and not yet resolved (with surgery possible), and Dupuytrens in both hands rectified with a series of injections.

All in all, I think I have had about 150+ needles in my body in twelve months and I’m getting a little sensitive. Ouch!!

So, what have I learned from all of this?

  • 50 years ago, I would be buggered. My physical health would have deteriorated rapidly, and life would have become very restricted and painful.
  • Constant pain is tiring, and after 12 months I have got a little worn down with it all.
  • The skill of our surgeons and medical staff is bloody impressive. What they have achieved with me is hard to fathom.
  • In recovery it’s the little things that make a huge difference. A friend of ours is a geriatrician, and she was kind enough to drop off all sorts of gadgets which made a huge difference.
  • My personal resilience, when worn down by multiple events, makes me very vulnerable and it still takes me by surprise. It’s the combination of random events that is a stumbling block for me.
  • In June I had some events overlap that were not scheduled, which meant my limited stamina was stretched to breaking. I remember thinking I would do anything for a burst of energy, and reflected that I could understand why professionals resorted to using methamphetamine as a crutch. What a spooky thought.
  • Being able to express how I feel is a wonderful release of energy and helps me recover. So why is it still difficult to do?
  • There is nothing better than people connecting to see how you are doing – always nice to receive.
  • Getting flowers from one bloke to another is ace! Thanks Keith.
  • Without support throughout the critical times by Kate, I would have struggled to keep it together. After the first hip operation, with on-going spasms and the mosque attacks, I was finding it very hard to stay positive – thinking I had months of rehab ahead and did I have the resolve?

My year highlighted the gap between those that can afford health insurance and those who can’t. Southern Cross has invested about $120,000 into my body, allowing me to chose when I have surgery. In the public system the surgeons and nurses (we love nurses) are just as good, but I wonder where I would be up to in getting through my list?

Now I’m an old bugger, and if you’re reading this and you’re not, here’s my ponderings for you:

  • 20- and 30-year-olds: right now you feel like you are invincible in the physical department. It’s true to a point, but whatever you do to the body in these years shows up later on. Both good and bad. Form good habits as early as possible – meditation, exercise, diet, and learn to chill.
  • 40+-year-olds: this is the time of life when you often realise that you’re no longer superman (or woman / person!), and your recovery times are not what they used to be. Time for a recalibration on the hours you work. You may have a family now, and if you don’t spend time with them now, you’ll never get it back. The body will be sending you signals – learn to listen to them and do something about them.
  • 50+-year-olds: this is when the niggles and the lack of preventative maintenance start to show. The body starts to ache, and you just don’t move the same. Time to stay on top of those regular health checks and monitor all sorts of areas of the body you once took for granted. Let the GP’s do their thing, plus colonoscopies and prostate check ups just aren’t that bad. Get on top of any niggles early.

NB: these off-the-cuff thoughts of mine do not constitute or substitute for a real chat with your health professional.

As I write this, I just got clearance to drive again after surgery, and having that independence back is just wonderful (and the staff in the office think so too!). Yes, I have an unresolved frozen shoulder issue, but we have a plan for that.

Now to rest-up in earnest over the New Year and look forward to 2020 and beyond. Hope you’re all planning to do the same.

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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